Many saw hope to advance women’s labor rights in post-revolution Egypt; however, rather than moving the agenda forward, the transition period has seen women increasingly pushed out of the labor force. While the benefits of gender diversity in the workforce are supported by a wealth of research, women in Egypt are being marginalized at all its echelons.

Egypt scores consistently poor on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, with a 2012 ranking of 126 out of 135 countries. There is a disconnect between women’s educational attainment and their participation in the labor force; the female-to-male ratio is basically on par from elementary enrollment through high school, at 0.97 and 0.96 respectively (with a number closer to 1 indicating greater gender parity).The university enrollment ratio only falls slightly to 0.91. However, this number tumbles sharply to 0.30 with labor force participation—compared to a global average of 0.68. While some of this unequal workforce participation may be attributed to women’s personal choices, many of them seeking jobs are denied opportunities. At 23 percent, Egypt’s female unemployment rate is almost twice that of the overall level.

Cultural norms are a reason for the underrepresentation of women in the workforce. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights notes that the perception of women as fragile, weak under stress, untrustworthy, and disloyal adds to the isolation of career women. Fear that they will leave the workforce when starting a family is another factor that drives workplace discrimination. The fact that the social responsibility of raising children is generally not shared between the sexes leads to the exclusion of women from the labor force at an early career stage—giving them little chance to advance their careers. An ineffective and inequitable legislative framework is another reason for women’s underrepresentation. While Egyptian law stipulates that women are to receive 90 days of paid maternity leave for their first two children, implementation of this law is sporadic at best. Companies often find ways to avoid promoting women, and some businesses even advance the argument that the uncertainty associated with hiring women dampens investment. 

A growing body of research—such as a study conducted by the International Finance Corporation in 2011—shows that gender diversity helps elevate a company’s brand value and image, increase the satisfaction of both its clients and staff, and enhance its knowledge base. Some studies have gone beyond the purely economic contributions of gender diversity in the workforce and look at working women’s contributions in building better societies. According to a recent Forbes article, women business owners are more likely to reinvest profits for the social good in areas such as education, their families, and their communities. 

Sadly, rather than promoting women’s labor rights, Egypt has been heading in the opposite direction for the last two years, and the increasing occurrence of sexual harassment and violence after the revolution contributes to this backtracking. The 2011 International Women’s Day march in Tahrir Square was marred by incidents of women being isolated and sexually assaulted. Later, a number of perpetrators admitted to being paid to carry out these actions—raising concerns of a dark political play. The United Nations Information Center in Cairo reports that Cairo is the second worst in the world in terms of sexual harassment—noting that many cases go unreported. Furthermore, Egypt’s new constitution does not have specific mechanisms to protect women. And though the law of the land ensures equality of women in all areas—including economic ones—this is only as long as doing so does not violate Islamic jurisprudence. This caveat could be subject to varying interpretations.

Cairo’s United Nations Information Center also notes that harassment is "indiscriminate": it happens to anyone and anywhere, on the streets and in the workplace. In Cairo, 80 percent of women surveyed by the UN reported to have been harassed, some daily. The socioeconomic impact of this cannot be understated; respondents have said they felt humiliated and disgusted, and preferred to stay at home and avoid public places. Many quit their jobs or lost them as a result of taking too many sick days. The Arab region already ranks second-to-last in terms of women’s labor force participation; rampant sexual harassment only worsens this standing. 

Any real attempt at promoting women should be grounded in legislation. Several countries outside the region have experimented with quotas for women; Norway led the charge in 2003 by imposing quotas for 500 companies to ensure at least 40 percent of the country's boardroom seats were filled by women. In the decade that followed, Norway has managed to surpass this level with women comprising 45 percent of boardroom positions today, compared to 6 percent in 2001 (around where Egypt is presently). Spain, France, and Italy followed with varying targets and milestones, while several other European countries are also in the midst of passing similar laws. Egypt’s quota activists are pushing for more modest levels of 20 percent to start with a phase-in period (as France has done).

Egypt had already experimented with quotas in the political sphere, with 10 percent of parliamentary seats guaranteed for women under the old regime, a portion that was increased to 12.5 percent in the last Mubarak-era election. But in the November 2011 parliamentary elections, the quota system was replaced with the requirement that each political party put at least one woman on their electoral lists. Given that few parties put women at the top of their lists, women had slim chances of gaining representation in the first post-revolution parliament. Compared to the 64 seats for women in the People’s Assembly before the fall of Mubarak, only eight women won seats in the 508-member People’s Assembly a year ago. The upcoming second attempt at legislative elections shows no sign that the electoral procedures will be any different. In addition to inequality in the legislature, the executive branch is also seeing fewer women; in Prime Minister Hesham Qandil’s current cabinet, there is only one woman—Mubarak’s had four.

While many support quotas, some women worry that they will face stigma from the perception of being promoted as a result of quotas rather than ability. Nonetheless, starting with this step as a temporary measure will (at the very least) help level the playing field. In fact, Article 4 of the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—which Egypt is a signatory of—supports adopting “temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women.”

Other legislation could seek to enforce anti-discrimination laws. While men and women are equal under the Egyptian constitution, an equal pay act—which would prohibit discrimination at the entry points into the labor market, in job titles, in job ranks, and in pay scales—has yet to be passed. Companies should be obliged to keep better records of the hiring process and be able to demonstrate the absence of workplace discrimination.

Furthermore, policies to prevent women from prematurely dropping out of the workforce can include the restructuring of maternity leave. Article 10 of the constitution grants special care and protection for mothers and allows for women to balance family and work. The language of this article should be supplemented by specific legislation in support of working mothers; benefits, such as quality daycare facilities, should be offered—optimally with companies providing in-house services—and the law should clamp down on unfair dismissals because of pregnancy. Additionally, paternity leave should also be introduced as a means to encourage shared responsibility of early parenthood.

Non-legislative solutions should focus on advocacy and awareness— including at the grassroots level. Egypt’s state statistics agency found in 2009 that women were largely unaware of their constitutional right to gender equality. Rather than using conventional media, highly popular talk shows could be used as a tool for development by raising these issues. Additionally, a shift in mindset is needed to alter social views towards women in the longer term; such a paradigm shift can only be tackled through a patient, long term campaign to win over all stakeholders—secular as well as religious—and will have to mobilize the efforts of the government, media, private sector, NGOs, and international organizations. Last year saw 50-plus women’s rights marches but backsliding in various aspects of women’s rights in Egypt. 

Mustansir Barma is a political economist and presently a senior economic researcher with the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. He is also a regular contributor to Business Monthly.